What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN# 9780544272996, $24.00.
Hours before his latest novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Richard Flanagan read at the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library. University Book Store was there. After the reading, during the Q&A, Flanagan lamented the dearth of a distinctly Australian literary culture in the 1970s when he was growing up. Studying British and American works exclusively, he said, reinforced a colonized mindset. “You felt less than,” he explained, bringing to mind similar statements that writers in ethnic or racial minorities have made about the literary “canon” in U.S. schools. How wonderful for Flanagan–and Australia–is the Man Booker nomination!
A prescient work twelve years in the writing, The Narrow Road to the Deep North reflects an historiographical sea change that is bringing to light the full extent of Japanese war crimes, debunking the notion of the heroic soldier in World War II, and refuting the notion that Americans won the war all by ourselves. In searing, excruciating detail, Narrow Road animates the physical, emotional, and spiritual dehumanization wrought on the Thai-Burma death railway.
The book’s eponymous title is an homage to a haibun by the Japanese monk and poet Matsuo Basho* (1644 – 1694); the text, to Flanagan’s father, Archie, who fought for Australia and was captured and enslaved on the railway. “For prisoner san byaku san jū go (335),“ the dedication says.
This is not a book to read casually–or remotely close to bed time. In a devastating postwar scene that lingers in my mind, a Japanese veteran with blood on his hands reveals a leading philanthropist and physician as having directed research in “vivisection and many other things. Testing biological weapons on prisoners . . .
“. . . Today,” the veteran continues, “Mr. Naito is a well-respected figure. And why? Because neither our government nor the Americans want to dig up the past. The Americans are interested in our biological warfare work; it helps them prepare for war against the Soviets. We tested these weapons on the Chinese; they want to use them on the Koreans. I mean, you got hanged if you were unlucky or unimportant. Or Korean. But the Americans want to do business now.”
We are all connected.
* Sam Hamil, co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, made a wonderful translation of Basho’s poem.
Late last night, baby and wife were asleep and I was sitting in a chair next to an old reading lamp lost in a book. It was a hypnotic state, a trance we readers know, when time, space, and body merge into the world of a story. It had been going on that way for a while until, close to midnight, I heard a knock. Two quiet raps. My nerves bucked. I looked over my shoulder for a fevered moment out the window – of a fifth floor apartment – into darkness. No movement, no people or cars on the side street below. I swallowed, blamed the fridge. Still shaking a bit I turned back to the book. Then it came again. Two quiet raps. I stood up. The room seemed to buzz. Air stuck in my throat. I walked over and opened the bedroom door a few inches. From the pitch-black I heard a voice: “Are you coming to bed?”
My wife had a good reason to wonder why I wasn’t in bed and I had a good reason not to be. I was reading All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. It’s one of those books that can keep you up past midnight while others wonder where you are. It has some of the most frightening and most beautiful passages I’ve ever read in fiction. It’s the best book I’ve read this year.
Wyld has a knack for everything: small details that contain whole worlds, a poetic command of language, characters who breathe and bleed off the page and an Australian landscape so powerfully rendered it’ll give you sunburns. It is breathless reading. She does precisely what we hope would be done with marvelous gifts like hers – dream up a good story, and tell it.
This book is not for the faint of heart. Like one of my favorite books from last year, The Panopticon, Wyld’s young heroine is runaway with a extraordinarily grim and troubled past (and present). In recent weeks the literary community has had an ongoing discussion about trigger warnings and the power of fiction to summon unwanted, traumatic memories. If someday books wear warnings on the cover, All the Birds, Singing might have one. But it is interesting to note that Wyld’s story is itself about the complex, often troubled relationship of trauma to memory. The intricate structure of the narrative serves to illustrate the labyrinth of locked doors and winding architecture of a traumatized mind.
As a bookseller, it’s my responsibility to recommend the right books to the right readers. My tastes tend toward the dark end of the spectrum, so when asked for recommendations apropos of nothing, the list of titles I rattle off usually have a disclaimer. At some point, though, a good book is a good book, and the best books to incorporate human darkness do so to explore, not exploit. I haven’t yet read Wyld’s first book – After the Fire, A Still Small Voice – but from what I gather, she explores trauma there as well. I imagine she does it with the same strength and care she does in her latest. That book, unsurprisingly, singled her out as an author to watch. This book should cancel all doubt. There are, I hope, many more stoires to come from Evie Wyld.
It’s the time of year for renewal. To restart cycles, redye the hairdo, rewind the cassette tapes. Snow melts, songbirds sing, colors bloom, the sun comes out and old things come back to us in new forms. For example, books come out in paperback. You might say, well, books come out in paperback all year. Sure. That’s true. But I’m painting a larger picture here. Anyways all the paperbacks I’m talking about came out in spring. Good enough? Moving on.
Like a butterfly from chrysalis, a paperback doesn’t necessarily match it’s larval, hardcover iteration. For anyone like me who, for better or worse, went to art school, the design decisions are more than kind of interesting. Some books keep the original design. Those who do are often the mainstream mega-bestsellers – Dan Brown, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, even Game of Thrones – but the literary stuff usually gets a fresh breath of life, or at least a new take. To illustrate, here’s a selection of my 2013 favorites that have come back around with new plumage.
The People in the Trees knocked my socks clean off. When I finished it was hard to read anything else for a while, and even now I’ll stop reading a book that I realize is trying to do something The People in the Trees did much better – namely, be haunting, wonderfully crafted and well-told, like Shirley Jackson’s stuff, or The Sparrow or Geek Love. It lingers like a bad, beautiful dream. And as for the covers, the hardcover (left) gets the moody strangeness and the paperback (right) gets the violence. One great thing about the hardcover is that if you were holding it in your hands you’d see the maggots all over the spine. It’s brilliant. The paperback is handsome, too, but moreso than dreamlike/odd it falls toward edgy/gritty. And if you haven’t read it and are wondering what the deal is with the turtle, well, then, read the book.
This I read in one sitting. We Need New Names was a finalist for the Man-Booker Prize and why was obvious in the reading – swift prose and a powerful narrative voice telling a damn good story. The hardcover (left) is electric yellow with skinny typography, which gets the exotic setting and the skinny legs of the young protagonist & her pals. The plane in the center takes the protagonist from her friends in Zimbabwe to America, and her aunt. The paperback (right) borrows much of the same palette but has the feel of U.S. propaganda painted on wood panels, maybe the side of someone’s home in Zimbabwe shortly before it’s bulldozed by Revolutionaries. As you might notice, the book got some good attention. Paperbacks often wear awards & praise like generals wear war medals, to gaudy results. This cover handles its accolades well. I hope it means this book will be noticed and read.
Perhaps you’ve also noticed that all these entries are debut books by women writers. All I can say is, so they are. It’s exciting because every book here is incredible and these writers are young and just getting their motors going. The Panopticon was written by a Scottish poet. The protagonist is a young girl and the setting is a prison. The hardcover (left) gets the prison (bars, keyhole), but the paperback (right), in a very subtle upgrade, really hints at what kind of prison – circular, with a watchtower in the middle to observe all prisoners at once. Also hypnotic, radiating lines which evoke the concentric circles of the prison and the protagonist’s often drug-induced, quasi-hallucinogenic, paranoid experience of her world. Both covers are stunning and capture well how unlike this book is from almost any other. And of note, both covers may have subconscious appeal to Hitchcock fans. And that’s all for now, til the next installment – happy reading, whether your book be hardcover, paperback, or e-.
Here’s a great new “long-list” of titles nominated for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. From their website:
“Now in its fifth year, the Walter Scott Prize has become a prestigious and distinctive star in the firmament of literary prizes. Honouring the achievements of Sir Walter Scott, the founding father of the historical novel, the Prize rewards writing of exceptional quality with a setting of ‘Sixty Years Since’, echoing the subtitle of Scott’s most famous work, Waverley. With a winner’s prize of £25,000, it rivals the biggest and best literary prizes in the UK.”
Of the six titles on the list this year, Andrew Greig’s Fair Helen doesn’t seem to be available yet here in the States, but all the rest are already major titles for us: from Hachette, Kate Atkinson‘s revelatory Life After Life. New just this month from Skyhorse, comes The Promise, by Ann Weisgarber. A favorite with some of our own, from Random House, Harvest, by Jim Crace, author of the award winning, Being Dead, among many great books. If you don’t already know Eleanor Catton, she’s already won the Man Booker Prize for this one, The Luminaries, from Hachette. The new book from the author of Fatherland, Robert Harris makes the list with An Officer and a Spy, from Random House.
There’s a pretty wide range of history, subject and style here, on what is now among our favorite lists of the new award season. Read away.
I love books. And movies. And books about movies, well don’t get me started—those are like the literary equivalent of Reese’s peanut butter cups. For me, one of the most fascinating periods of history is the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the 1920s till the early 1950s, the era of the Studio System and such moguls as Irving Thalberg and Samuel Goldwyn. The former served as inspiration for the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon; the latter is the subject of A. Scott Berg’s second biography, Goldwyn, an insightful and comprehensive portrait of one of the most powerful Hollywood figures to rule a studio. (And thanks to Mr. Berg’s recent stop at Town Hall for his new, and impressive biography on Woodrow Wilson, the University Book Store has signed copies of both Wilson and Goldwyn.)
The Studio System excelled at doing two things: producing films with astonishing efficiency (at its peak, Goldwyn’s studio MGM produced 52 features a year, one for every week) and promoting its stars into pop culture icons. One of the most iconic stars ever to emerge from Hollywood was Elizabeth Taylor, the subject of M. G. Lord’s The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted By Her Beauty to Notice. Lord’s award winning book recounts how Taylor—in such films as BUtterfield 8, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—was able to subtly embodied the ideas of postwar feminism through her performances and also discusses her lasting legacy as an AIDS activist. For those wanting further evidence of Lord’s thesis, University Book Store has a compilation of four Elizabeth Taylor films, which includes her Academy Award-winning turn in BUtterfield 8.
One can hardly mention Elizabeth Taylor without conjuring up the specter of Richard Burton. Their romance and marriage defined Celebrity in the 1960s and early 70s. Last year, The Richard Burton Diaries were published and is now available in paperback and offers invaluable insight into one of the screen’s master thespians.
The 60s and 70s were a turbulent time for the movies. Television had chipped away at the once powerful studios, leaving them shells of their former selves. Mick Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution recounts how the Hollywood reinvented itself for the modern era. Along similar lines, Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value examines the indelible mark horror films—from Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to Alien—made on cinema in the 70s and 80s.
The best contemporary writer on the movies and Hollywood is David Thomson, whose The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a witty, engaging, and entertaining reference to nearly every major figure in cinema. His most recent book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, comes out in paperback next month. Thomson explores how the movies first entranced America and what it means now that the silver screen is shrinking and shrinking to the point where we can (and sometimes, do) watch a movie on an iPhone. New Yorker film critic David Denby’s book, Do The Movies Have a Future?, furthers the discussion started by Thomson and will also be released in paperback later this month.
Of course, The New Yorker‘s most famous film critic was the formidable and influential Pauline Kael, the subject of Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark. She is also the only film critic to have a selection of her reviews published in the prestigious Library of America series. In Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s wonderful memoir, the critic shares how much cinema shaped his life. Both works show, in turn, how Kael’s and Ebert’s criticism shaped the movies we know and love today.
Finally, the fall season always heralds a new slate of literary adaptations, and this year is no different. Among the films based on books that you’ll be hearing about include 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, already touted as a Best Picture favorite; The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s account of Charles Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes; Horns by Joe Hill, which stars Daniel Radcliffe, who also portrays Beat poet Allen Ginsburg in Kill Your Darlings; and Life of Crime, an adaptation of The Switch by the late, great Elmore Leonard.
As always, we recommend reading the book before seeing the film.
In the three years I worked Author Events for University Book Store, meeting and hosting David Rakoff in the Fall of 2010 was, hands down, the best experience of my stint. He was on tour for Half Empty; and was frail, in pain, with an arm so weakened by his cancer that he couldn’t even hold his book. David Rakoff made such an impression on me. I have to admit (don’t throw tomatoes!) that I barely knew his work at that point. I was excited about him because my boyfriend was excited about him. I had heard his ridiculously funny skit on Wire Tap with Jonathan Goldstein where he insists that getting drunk before a job interview is the way to go. I spent an evening and a day with him and I fell in love (I’m not kidding). As you can imagine, David was sharp, witty and smart. He was also kind, sensitive, and so cool. He was my people. We sat back and talked about crafting and boys and being Jewish and New York City. He asked me about my family history and was sincere in his curiosity. He told me my boyfriend was a cutie! He brought a handmade stamp of his face that he stamped on every book he signed. He was self-deprecating and joked about his health. He used his words carefully and was extremely present. I feel so lucky that I got to share a brief moment in his life and that I was able to let him impact me.
I can’t recommend his new book enough. It’s brilliant. We’re all so lucky to have a piece of his genius come alive after his too short life has sadly ended. Did you hear that one Wire Tap that’s a spin off of Kafka’s metamorphosis? Jonathan Goldstein plays Gregor Samsa who wakes up to find himself an insect and he writes to a Doctor named Seuss, who is written and read by Rakoff. Doctor Seuss writes back only in rhyme. The fluidity of Rakoff’s rhyme in that skit is carried over to his new novel, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which is essentially the history of 20th century America, written in iambic pentameter.
It’s one of a kind, and a joy to read.
–Anna Micklin, General Non-Fiction Buyer
If you were to ask me if I wanted to read a novel written by a person dying of cancer exploring the meaning of life, my first answer would always be a resounding—Pass. It’s not that I don’t think those novels have a place or are worthy of readership—they’re just not for me. Mostly due to my own innate cynicism and a family medical history that leads me to assume I’ll be one of them at some point. (Avoidance is a magical protective force field.) But the final work and first novel written by David Rakoff—I definitely wanted to read. I knew Rakoff’s work mostly from This American Life. I knew his voice and the voice inside my head would get along–that I would get none of the death-bed religion I am so cynical about. Rakoff’s dark sense of humor applied even to the most terrifying of tragedies, his own death, and this novel is no different. He never glosses over the dark, never makes excuses—it simply is, and is worth noting. With LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH, Rakoff seems almost to be willing the reader and himself to recognize the light alongside the darkness, to see the DEATH as part of LIFE.
“Everything seemed bathed in a heavenly light,
Perhaps, it was just as a contrast to night”.
Within the first few stanzas of this rhyming novel the rhythm of the meter pulls you into it like the rhythm of a train on a track. Its solid, steady pace weaves and winds its way across the country and spans the 20th century. Rakoff adeptly drives the story, stitching and tying together a tapestry of interconnections: between a red-haired teenage Margaret escaping the brutality of slaughterhouse work and familial abuse in turn-of-the-century Chicago; Artistic Clifford only recently freed in the San Francisco of Gay Liberation to land harshly in the AIDS epidemic; Put-upon Nate who finally stands up for himself in a best-man speech at his ex’s wedding to his best friend, and more— all connected, sometimes barely but always significantly, rolling into each other until you reach the end, which in itself harkens forward and backwards simultaneously. Cycle of Life, though rolling ever forward, passengers disembarking and boarding all along.
Rakoff never steers into the precious and never makes the proclamation of there being a Master Plan (be it God or Fate). Rakoff’s is a world of happenstance, but one in which those fleeting moments, even if unrecognized by the participants, are imbued with so much weight and potential. The title and Seussian rhyme scheme alert us–His is a declaration that Beauty and Joy are all around us but so is Damage, so is Darkness and Death and it is all LIFE. And Life is not a solo endeavor. We are each simply a word in a much bigger rhyme.
The fact that Rakoff created this work as he himself faced and succumbed to death is extraordinary and adds extraordinary weight to it, but the novel could stand alone without its writer’s death. I wish entirely that it did. This book can be read quickly, but shouldn’t be. It should be read, slowly, savoured, and re-read.
–Anna Updegraff, Author Events Buyer
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel by David Rakoff was released on July 16, 2013 from Doubleday, a division of Random House.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
An intelligent and hilarious novel about love, bi-nationality and identity. Adichie unapologetically cuts through America’s political correctness to reveal the mass of conflicting voices underneath.–Mechio
Full Body Burden, Kristen Iverson
As much a work of investigative journalism as a memoir. Iverson grew up next to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons factory once designated “the most contaminated site in America.” She writes movingly of a childhood full of secrets and cover-ups examined through a lens directed equally at Rocky Flats as at her family.–Mary
The Aviator’s Wife, Melanie Benjamin
The Aviator’s Wife crosses all genres; the MYSTERY of a high profile kidnapping, the HISTORICAL flights that changed travel, the ROMANCE between a hero and his seemingly demure wife, and the REALISM of the daily life of a family hounded by the paparazzi. The strength, intelligence and loyalty of an inspirational woman radiates on every page of this book. It was a joy to “meet” Anne Morrow Lindbergh.